REBUILDING RAIL IN THE 2020S
Chief Executive MARK PHILLIPS explains how RSSB is helping the industry to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19
RSSB has been at the very heart of the rail sector for almost two decades. Established in 2003 in the aftermath of the fatal crash at Ladbroke Grove, it has been tasked with leading and facilitating industry-wide efforts to create a betterperforming, safer railway ever since.
Formerly known as the Rail Safety and Standards Board, the not-for-profit organisation’s remit includes managing and developing Railway Group Standards on behalf of the rail industry, leading the development of long-term safety strategy, and supporting cross-industry groups that address major areas of safety risk.
Since 2012, it has also facilitated the implementation of the Rail Technical Strategy, which calls on industry to find innovative technical solutions to the multiple challenges it collectively faces over the next 30 years.
RSSB provides technical support via its own research and development programme and employs more than 270 specialist staff covering a range of technical disciplines - including operations, engineering, information technology and risk assessment.
Leading RSSB’s day-to-day activities is
CEO Mark Phillips, who tells RAIL how his organisation’s wealth of expertise has been deployed to support the industry’s response to the outbreak of Coronavirus in late March.
“One of the first things we did was to discuss with our members - in particular Network Rail and the trade unions - the principles around which work on the network could continue safely. Alongside colleagues at the Rail Delivery Group and the Office of Rail and Road, we agreed those principles so that routine maintenance and renewals could go ahead to keep the railway running for key workers and vital freight.
“The next stage was to talk to train operators about how they needed to reflect changes in their safety management systems in order to keep the risk of transmission as low as possible for staff and passengers, as timetables were slowly brought back up to near pre-pandemic levels.
“During the summer, we then started to develop our own transmission models so that we could further help to build up confidence with passengers and operators around travelling by train.”
Published in early August, this analysis by RSSB calculated that the risk of contracting COVID-19 while travelling by train was approximately 1-in-11,000 journeys.
Furthermore, the risk was believed to more than halve if passengers wear face coverings (which have been mandatory on the network since June), with the overall safety risk for travelling by car deemed to be 25 times less safe than rail.
RSSB’s findings successfully challenged the public perception that trains represented a hotspot of infection and that use of private road vehicles was a safer alternative.
Phillips adds: “Our transmission model was and is an opportunity for the public to see that travelling by train is safe, as we look to get back to doing the things that we used to do. We will continue to update and refresh the model to reflect changes to the wider risk of COVID19 in the community, and are also looking to develop a tool so that operators can update it themselves for their particular circumstances.
“We’ve been quite busy, and it’s been novel because we haven’t had to address these types of concerns before. But I think it’s enabled us to work with lots of organisations that we haven’t done before, and to build a much closer relationship with our members.
“Typically, much of our previous work has been quite long-term, but we’ve had to come up with immediate solutions to meet the industry’s needs now - not just in years to come.”
Following reports in early November of an effective vaccine becoming available early next year, thoughts are beginning to turn toward the UK’s emergence from the Coronavirus pandemic.
The full implications of the pandemic on future demand for rail travel are yet to be borne out, although there is broad consensus that a pre-existing shift towards greater home working and less peak-time travel has been accelerated.
Phillips explains: “I think the impact on rail is too early to tell. But the signs are that mass commuting is less likely and that people will still use the train, but for more specific purposes such as meetings and events.
“That means that flexible ticketing needs to be sorted out very quickly. People aren’t going to want to buy annual season tickets and deposit £ 6,000-£10,000 with a railway company in advance of any travel.”
Phillips argues that as well as posing a threat to the industry, the pandemic has also created an opportunity to remake the case for rail’s continued role as an economic multiplier and one of the most sustainable means of travel.
He is therefore urging the industry to productively use the remaining duration of the pandemic to design its own destiny, so that it will be in a stronger position to respond to any future-demand scenario and be ready to kickstart the UK economy.
It must show government and the wider public that continuing to invest in rail travel is vital, and that it remains an attractive option that aids productivity, leisure and other connections between people, while also helping to curb climate change.
“It’s almost as if you have brown paper up at the window and you’re busy doing the internal refurbishment behind the scenes,” says Phillips.
“We need to make good use of this time, so that when passengers do return, they are pleasantly surprised by what they find.
“I think that there comes a point where people begin to get bored within their own confines, so there is definitely an opportunity to encourage travel - even though it will be a different sort of arrangement than we’ve been used to in the past.
“Before Coronavirus, the network was almost at capacity. This might provide an opportunity to rebalance how the system works, so that it’s more reliable and enjoyable for the end user and overall satisfaction becomes higher than it has been of late.
“Relatively speaking, we are a small industry, and we have to spend less time worrying about internal demarcations and who does what because our joint purpose is to win customers away from road and to build a better Britain.”
He adds: “Rail has been phenomenally successful over the last 200 years in stimulating
We have to demonstrate fantastic performance, a reliable product and be better with passengers. Mark Phillips, Chief Executive, RSSB
Britain’s economy, and I believe it continues to offer that opportunity. But we have to make sure that we don’t lose that chance.
“We have to demonstrate fantastic performance, a reliable product and be better with passengers, because we know that customer service can be a bit patchy and that information can be sporadic and not as accurate as it should be. Perhaps COVID-19 will allow us to do some groundwork and get to that better place.”
The industry charting its own route forward will also be important, given that government is currently providing an estimated £ 900 million per month in financial support to keep services running while demand remains low.
Although this financial backing is a sign that rail remains a key priority for government, it seems likely that pressure will grow from within the Treasury for cost optimisation if revenue remains low.
Phillips does not shy away from this challenge and agrees the industry will need to demonstrate value for money and that it can be more efficient.
He points to the RSSB model established in 2003 that was built on the premise that improvements in safety and standards can be made by adopting best practice collaboratively. He says that this reduces cost and the need for companies to invent or invest in their own solutions, as well as having the potential to further improve sustainability and performance as well as safety, health and wellbeing.
“We’ve been very fortunate for the last 20 years to have this five-year funding settlement and it would be a really retrograde step if we moved away from those longerterm arrangements. But clearly there is going to be a renewed focus on cost and efficiency.
“There are two things we can do. Firstly, as a membership body, we have to be as efficient as possible and organise and carry out our work, so it provides the best value for money.
“The work we do must also be of sufficient quality to enable the industry to reduce its costs. For example, if you take standards, we are working with government on its Restoring Beeching agenda, because it might not be that you want national rail standards to apply to all of those routes if it makes them too expensive to operate. Producing something that’s lower cost so that those lines can reopen at an affordable amount of money is the sort of initiative we can help industry with.
“We also have our long-standing research and technology programme, which is important because the industry does need to look forward in terms of what we do differently in five to ten years’ time.
“We help to make sure research is joined up with other programmes [like Network Rail’s], and we have been working with universities on a lot of research into how you do things better and cheaper - for instance, how you might reprofile rolling stock wheels more efficiently or how we can reduce the likelihood of pantographs damaging overhead lines.”
While COVID-19 has provided a short, sharp shock to the industry, the end hopefully appears to be in sight. Despite the immediate priorities and changes that may well now follow, nobody should doubt RSSB’s determination to help position rail as a longterm solution.
Phillips concludes: “We should make no mistake that the pandemic has had a hugely damaging impact on the industry, and we are hugely grateful for the support the Government has given us.
“But we are where we are, and the opportunity is there for us to grasp what we have learned from this process and what we can embed into working differently in future.”